Alex Sender, sitting at a corner table at Boca Raton’s Funky Biscuit, is a connoisseur of tribute bands — a phenomenon that has soared to new heights since the pandemic.
Tribute bands now headline festivals and fill the marquees of local music venues.
Sender ticks off the tribute bands he has seen: Turnstiles, a Billy Joel tribute outfit. Jade, which captures the Aerosmith experience. The Hot Rod Show, where musician George Orr performs Rod Stewart’s greatest and is a dead ringer for the legend. But he’s not stopping there.
There is Roll the Stones, which performs, no surprises, Rolling Stones songs. And The Boss Project, which of course is all about Bruce Springsteen.
On this night, Sender, 56, is at the “Biscuit” to see Ticket to the Moon, an Electric Light Orchestra tribute band that recreates the live show experience not just with the looks and musical ability but also with an amazing video show.
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“I’m just a sucker for bad ’80s metal and good ‘70s and ‘90s rock,” Sender said. “It’s just fun to go out and listen to classic rock that you’re familiar with. It tells the story of our childhood.”
South Florida is dripping with musical talent. Many of these artists have been around for decades, making a living — a hard one at that — as professional musicians. Some teach music on the side, work as session musicians or pick up gigs whenever and wherever they can.
“These bands like ELO and some other really classic rock music — they don’t play a lot,” said Jamie Meselsohn, the bassist for Ticket to the Moon.
“Our demographic crowd has grown up with these bands. So I feel like they trick themselves where they believe they are actually seeing ELO.”
Ticket to the Moon are veterans. Reggie Fecteau — who fills the role of ELO frontman Jeff Lynne and runs the band — is a legend in the local music scene, playing with numerous outfits over the years.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I discovered ELO,” the 60-year-old said.
South Florida is a saturated market for tribute bands
Larry Berfond knows tribute bands. He owned a piece of Ultimate Michael Jackson Tribute show that used the same musicians and crew Jackson employed before his death.
Now Berfond owns the Black Box Theater in Boca Raton, which gets its share of tribute bands.
“South Florida has completely covered the market for tribute bands. We have more tribute bands than anywhere,” Berfond said. “It’s absolutely crazy.”
And, because these are tribute bands, the players benefit from being able to shed one rock persona for another. Berfond said musicians for one tribute band could come back the next night for another.
The paying customers eat it up.
Tribute bands have existed in South Florida and other markets for decades. Fecteau was in an elaborate Beatles tribute in Canada. Crazy Fingers is the preeminent Grateful Dead tribute group that is a local institution — and another favorite of Sender’s. The Long Run — a nod to the Eagles — are well established locally.
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But it’s never been at this level.
Have a beloved band or artist you haven’t caught in concert since you had to stand in line to get a ticket? No doubt there’s a tribute band covering their tunes coming to a venue near you any day now.
Some of the South Florida tribute artists tour nationally, and other tribute bands come here from out of state. Catch Broken Arrow — a Neil Young tribute band.
Look at the Biscuit’s marquee for the coming months and it’s filled with tribute bands, some more than once. Among the lineup: Tributes hammering out loving sets of Van Halen, Styx, Boston, Earth Wind & Fire and Led Zeppelin.
The summer tribute season began Memorial Day weekend, when the village of Wellington celebrated the reopening of its amphitheater with four days of tribute bands in all their glory. The lineup featured Odyssey Road (a Journey tribute); Dirty Work (a Steely Dan tribute) and Turnstiles.
Tribute band musicians are original No. 1 fans
All of these bands are love letters to the artists; you don’t dedicate this much time and talent to one singular band without being an absolute super fan.
Dirty Work is a 12-piece unit that tackles some of the more nuanced work in all of rock. The band does the whole Grammy-award winning “Aja” album — “Josie,” “Deacon Blues,” “Black Cow” — from front to back.
“You will hear the level of musicianship that is required to really put this music across,” Dirty Work’s James McCoy said. “It’s exceptional.”
He knows fans of Steely Dan — Donald Fagan and the late Walter Becker, the progenitors of a mix of sardonic rock and jazz — have high expectations.
“People who have listened to Steely Dan, they know what they are into, what attracts them to music — whether it be the lyrics or the musical complexity,” McCoy said.
Dirty Work aims to perform the whole “The Royal Scam” album — arguably the group’s most venomous set.
McCoy says this is no hobby. These are musicians who have made their living making music one way or another for years. Now, they get to pay homage to the bands and artists who inspired them to pick up an instrument in the first place.
“This is a labor of love that is now generating a little more interest. We take this stuff deadly seriously to try to raise it to the quality of the records,” he said.
And the musicians are there to entertain themselves as well.
“’Haitian Divorce’ is one of those songs from the ‘Royal Scam’ that maybe people don’t necessarily know, but it’s one that’s really kind of interesting to play,” McCoy said.
Need further evidence of pure musicianship? Catch Turnstiles doing “The Longest Time” — Billy Joel’s ode to doo-wop — a cappella.
Tony Monaco is the keyboardist and lead singer, ala Billy, but he has no problem letting the spotlight shine on his band.
And Turnstiles doesn’t just play the hits, it serves up some deep cuts, as well. “Summer Highland Falls,” for instance. “Allentown,” a single off Joel’s “Nylon Curtain,” is executed perfectly with the requisite pipe clanking percussion.
New generation of retirees enters the nostalgia hunt
Acts like Tony Orlando or Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. are no longer hitting the 55-and-up retirement communities, Monaco said. And the newcomers to the retirement scene aren’t interested anyway.
“A lot of people who are baby boomers and younger are starving for real entertainment. Most of the rock stars are wrapping up. Elton John’s wrapping out,” Monaco said. “So there’s a void that I think tribute bands are going to fall into.”
Berfond seconds that notion.
“The older crowd — 50 and up — they don’t want to go to the huge halls and get bounced around,” he said. “They would rather go to a place with a smaller crowd where you’re not paying $100 to see a band.”
The cost of paying tribute
So don’t these tribute bands have to pay royalties to the original artist from whom they are cloned? That actually falls to the venue, Berfond said, paying a licensing fee to ASCAP and BMI, performance rights organizations.
It’s all worth it — these shows are sold out, he said.
Back at the Biscuit with Ticket to the Moon, the band is getting ready to take the stage. It’s a family affair. Fecteau’s wife, Nathalie Tasse, plays keyboards and sings. His daughter, Broadway-trained singer Jade Tasse, adds to the rich choruses that ELO are famous for.
Besides Meselsohn, there is guitarist Dany Roy and drummer David Garrica Martincorena. The band is often accompanied by young string players from local universities to give the full ELO experience.
How good is the illusion?
The transformation backstage at the Funky Biscuit requires a curly-haired wig, the blackening of a silver beard — and Reggie Fecteau becomes rock legend Jeff Lynne.
After one show, a man in his 50s came up to him with two ELO albums in hand. “He wanted me to sign them because he thought I was Jeff Lynne,” Fecteau recalls.
He didn’t break the spell for the fan, signed the LPs and sent him on his way.